This month, the website will focus on Ellington’s Capitol LP “Premiered by Ellington”. This 10” LP has music that is not composed by Ellington but recorded by him for the LP.
However, this first article is about Ellington’s journey from the end of his contract with RCA Victor at the end of 1946 to his period with Capitol 1953-1955. In the next articles in the series Rasmus Henriksen will take a close look at the eight songs in the 10” LP.
Farewell to RCA Victor
In November 1944, RCA settled with the American Federation of Musicians and could resume recording its artists after two years of ban. Ellington was still under contract with RCA Victor and was eager to go back to the recording studios. He did so on December 1, 1944 and the focus was on his vocalists. Al Hibler, Joya Sherrilll and Kay Davis recorded I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues, I’m Beginning to See The Light, Don’t You Know I Care and I Didn’t Know About You.
Ten days later, Ellington recorded six songs from Black, Brown and Beige – Worksong, Come Sunday, The Blues, West Indian Dance, Emancipation Celebration and Sugar Hill Penthouse – in an abbreviated format. They were issued in 1946 as a 2 12” 78s album in the Victor Showpiece series. The year thereafter RCA Victor issued another 78s album, Ellington Plays The Blues with recordings from 1946.
This was among the last of Ellington’s recordings for RCA Victor. His contract with the company expired September 3, 1946 and was not renewed.
After this, Ellington did did not have a recording contract until he signed one with Columbia from 30 July 1947. In the intermediary period he did some recording sessions for Musicraft and Capitol Radio transcriptions.
By that time, George Avakian worked full time in Columbia’s pop A&R staff and on 22 December 1947, he produced his first record with Ellington. It was On A Turquoise Cloud. Two days later, Columbia recorded The Liberian Suite, which were to be issued 10” LP. It was the first time it happened to an Ellington recording. In an article in the DESS Bulletin in 2010. “It marked the first of several long Ellington works I had the pleasure to produce”, said Avakian in an article in the DESS Bulletin 2010.
Columbia initially recorded a significant part of Ellington’s and Billy Strayhorn’s new music of the late 1940’s, but a lot was also rather ordinary pop songs aimed at the singles and jukebox market.
Ellington’s contract with Columbia was renewed for two years on 30 July 1950.
By that time, George Avakian had been put in charge of a new Popular Albums. In this position, he managed to get an Ellington recording issued in Columbia’s prestigious Masterwork series, which were meant for the best of classical music. It was titled Masterpieces By Ellington and the four tracks of this Ellington 12” LP was recorded on 18 December 1950.
The LP is one of Ellington’s absolute best albums with some extraordinary arrangements, in particular by Billy Strayhorn, with solos of the highest quality and a marvelous sound for the times – a sound that still holds up now.
It sold well enough to allow Avakian to record a follow up. It was issued as Ellington Uptown and the tracks were recorded in December 1951 and in June and July 1952. As Ellington Masterpieces, it was issued in the Masterwork series.
The first track – Louie Bellson’s Skin Deep – with effective drumming by him made the LP a particular hit for demonstrating hifi equipment. This track was actually not recorded by Columbia but by Mercer Ellington’s Mercer Records, which sold it to Columbia.
However, the two LPs did not sell well enough to please the sales people at Columba and in 1953, Ellington was fed up with the company. He felt that he was both disfavored there compared to other artists when it came to making new records and neglected by the marketing people there. So he decided to leave Columbia for Capitol Records.
Moving to Capitol
The rather dry press release announcing his departure reflects his displeasure with Columbia: “I have signed with Capitol because this firm is doing an excellent job of presenting all its artists, particularly as it concerns exploitation.”
“I want a hit ….. I want to hear Ellington records in jukeboxes”, Ellington declared, and Capitol seemed a perfect choice for this. It was very successful with its focus on hit records.
The record company was founded in 1942 by singer Johnny Mercer together with songwriter and film producer Buddy DeSylvia and businessman Glenn Wallichs. The latter owned the famous record store Wallichs Music City in Hollywood. It soon became the first West Coast based record label, which could compete with the the likes of RCA Victor, Columbia and Decca.
Originally, it started with the focus on recording vocalists but soon it widened its scope to big bands and instrumentals. By the 1950s, Capitol had become a huge label that concentrated primarily on popular music of different kinds and had a good backbone talented arrangers like Billy May and Nelson Riddle.
The band that Ellington brought with him to Capitol was certainly very different from the one that stopped recording for RCA Victor in 1946. The seven years in between had seen many changes in its composition. Only five players from that time were still in the Ellington orchestra – Ray Nance, Cat Anderson, Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope and Harry Carney.
By replacing those who had left or stayed only a short period with some “solid” “old-timers and experienced players of a younger generation, Ellington started – perhaps unconsciously – to build the band that would put him back into the limelight at The Newport Jazz Festival 1956 and serve him well for the rest of the 1950’s and the early 1960’s.
In 1948, Quentin Jackson came on board to be the new “plunger-muter” and Wendell Marshall replaced Junior Raglin as the bass player.
In 1950, Paul Gonsalves was brought to the band as the new tenor sax player. He took over Al Sears’ chair even if there had been a couple of other tenor saxophonists between them.
In 1951 Ellington gave the band a kick by recruiting Willie Cook and Clark Terry to the trumpet section and Britt Woodman to the trombone section.
By the time Ellington moved over Capitol, the young alto saxophone player Rick Henderson and the drummer Butch Ballard was also part of the Ellington Orchestra.
Ellington recorded his first sides for Capitol on April 6, 1953 and the first song was a new one jointly composed by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn – Satin Doll. It was issued on a single shortly after it was recorded and made it to the hit lists for a short period. Ellington also got the marketing he yearned for. At the time of the release of the single, Capitol placed an elaborate full page Ellington ad in Billboard. However, this was as close as Ellington got to a hit. None of his other recordings did as well as Satin Doll and most of them were not released as singles but as EPs or LPs.
Ellington recorded 88 songs during his 25 months with Capitol, some of them twice. Not all of them were issued at the time. And it was really a mixed bag of music.
Some were meant to be issued as singles and some in extended or long-playing formats. Some were numbers for the full orchestra, others for a vocalist at the front. Some were familiar Ellington songs recorded several times before, others were new songs from his Strayhorn’s or band members’ pens, which had not yet found their way to a recording studio. Melodies strongly associated with other big bands and well-known hits from the 1930’s were also picked for recording.
Some of the arrangements of songs recorded were done by arrangers outside the normal inner Ellington circle like Gerald Wilson, Dick Vance and Buck Clayton. One reason was apparently that Strayhorn was unhappy with the way things were moving with Ellington and stayed a little bit on the sideline for a while focusing on other things.
The result of Ellington’s 23 visits to Capitol recording studios was nine singles and five LP albums. Some of the singles were vocal numbers by Jimmy Grissom, others were the “infamous” numbers in mambo rhythm that enraged hard-core Ellington fans but there were also some good orchestra numbers.
The first LP issued was “Premiered by Ellington” (1953). It is a 10’’ LP with eight songs such as “Stormy Weather, My Old Flame, and Three Little Words, Liza and Stardust that Ellington had recorded in the 1930s (except for Liza and Stardust which is also among the songs). The record also includes a good rendition of “Flamingo”. It was as well issued as a 45 rpm two-disc EP album at the time.
The next LP issue was another 10’’ vinyl, “Duke Plays Ellington” (1954) with eight songs played by Ellington assisted by Wendell Marshall and Butch Ballard. It places the “background piano player” at the forefront and the result unveils a side of Ellington until then unknown for many fans and critics. The record was also released 1954 as a 12’’ LP with four additional songs. It is perhaps the best of the Capitol albums.
Another 1954 release of Capitol recordings was the 12’’ LP “Dance To The Duke”. This is an album of old and new Ellington songs and is together with “Duke Plays Ellington” the best album coming out of the Capitol period. It shows that the Ellington orchestra was excellent, rejuvenated as it was with the recruitment of some young skillful players in the first years of the 1950’s.
The two 1955 releases are also good ones. The “Ellington ‘55” album is a tribute to the great big bands of the swing era (including the Ellington band) but it is also a way to show that Ellington and his rejuvenated orchestra could master this kind of repertoire as well. The performances are indeed energized by new arrangements.
The final Capitol album “Ellington Showcase” is exactly this – a showcase for the skills of the soloists of the band playing some more recent Ellington (and Strayhorn) songs and arrangements.
On May 19, 1955, a small band from within the orchestra was in Capitol studio in Chicago for what was to become Ellington’s farewell session. It starts with “Discontended Blues” and ends with “So Long”. The message had been delivered and Ellington was going to move on.
Part 2 of the series, which will be published next week on 18 January, will be about My Old Flame and Three Little Words.
Author: Ulf Lundin